Feds unravel Belle Isle lighthouse mystery

Robert Snell, The Detroit News

Detroit— The mystery surrounding a valuable lighthouse artifact that disappeared from Belle Isle decades ago has landed a modern-day Indiana Jones in federal court.

The Justice Department is suing a Livingston County man to recover two lenses worth an estimated $600,000 that disappeared from lighthouses on Belle Isle and in Portland, Maine. Federal court records and interviews describe a decades-long hunt and a daring figure with deep pockets whose hobby is finding maritime antiques, occasionally in war zones.

The legal battle pitting the U.S. Coast Guard against antique hunter Steven Gronow has the potential to restore a valuable piece of Detroit history to Belle Isle. Members of the lighthouse community, however, suggest the Justice Department is picking on a preservationist who has saved rare treasures that were once treated like trash by the government after it switched from manually operated lighthouses to automated beacons.

Gronow, a real-estate developer and former auto parts baron who built a private maritime museum in his 9,800-square-foot Genoa Township home that has its own lighthouse, suggests the mystery is still alive.

“I’m not saying I have them anymore,” Gronow, 59, told The Detroit News. “It probably would be smart for me not to say anything. They could be gone.”

The Belle Isle Lighthouse lens has been gone for a long time.

The two-foot-tall glass lens resembles a giant beehive and dates to 1880. The lens relies on a revolutionary design that focuses light into a single beam that can travel more than 20 miles.

The U.S. government bought the lens for a planned lighthouse on the southeast part of Belle Isle in 1881. The lens, developed by French physicist and engineer Augustin-Jean Fresnel, later was installed in the Belle Isle Lighthouse, a square, red-brick tower with an attached two-story brick building.

Fresnel lenses, however, are fragile, expensive to fix and tough to clean. Many were replaced with automated beacons while some were scavenged for brass components during World War II, dropped down elevator shafts, tossed from lighthouse towers, dumped in the sea or sold by Coast Guard stations.

Belle Isle Lighthouse keeper Capt. Ernest J. Bondy inspects the lens in 1937.

“They were selling barrels of miscellaneous crap, and in some of those barrels were a number of lighthouse lenses,” said John Polacsek, retired curator of the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle.

Others survive in museums and elsewhere.

“We came across one, someone had it sitting next to their fireplace as a piece of decor,” said Mike Vogel, president of the Buffalo Lighthouse Association in New York, who has built a database of about 400 surviving Fresnel lenses nationwide.

The Belle Isle Lighthouse was decommissioned in 1930, amid the debut of the William Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse less than a mile away on the northeast part of the island, and demolished in 1943 .

The lens was moved to the Livingstone lighthouse in 1935 or 1936, according to the Coast Guard, but further details have been lost to the fog of history.

“I heard it had been destroyed,” said Joel Stone, the Dossin Great Lakes Museum’s senior curator.

Or stolen.

In August 1980, thieves broke into the Livingstone lighthouse after prying open a heavy, locked brass-and-copper door and stole two lenses.

It is unclear if the theft involved the original Belle Isle lens, which weighs several hundred pounds, said Arlyn Danielson the Coast Guard’s curator.

“You can’t just grab it and run,” said Danielson, who has joined the hunt for the lenses.

A separate mystery involving a lighthouse lens, meanwhile, unfolded 914 miles east of Belle Isle.

A Fresnel lens disappeared from the Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse in Portland, Maine, sometime after 1960, according to the lawsuit.

The Spring Point lens, made in 1896, illuminated a dangerous stretch along the main shipping channel into Portland Harbor for 63 years until the lighthouse was automated.

“Nobody had a clue where it was. In a crate, destroyed, thrown overboard — we didn’t know,” said Keith Thompson, chairman of the nonprofit that took control of the lighthouse in 1998.

Thompson wanted to find the lens, however, and became an amateur sleuth.

In 2009, he stumbled upon Vogel’s lens database.

According to the database, the lens was in Howell, next door to Genoa Township.

“I didn’t know where that was. I started searching for Howell this and Howell that,” Thompson said. “Finally, I got in touch with (Vogel).”

Several years ago, Vogel was in Metro Detroit for a lighthouse conference. Gronow offered a tour of his home near Howell. The property houses his private collection of maritime antiques, a collection dubbed the Maritime Exchange Museum.

The Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse stands today; it replaced the Belle Isle Lighthouse in 1930.

The museum’s website lists several lenses for sale and notes: “We are prepared to travel worldwide to recover lenses.”

“He’s got some buoy lights he picked up in the Persian Gulf,” Vogel said.

Inside the private museum, with its honey-colored walls, was the Spring Point lens, Vogel said.

After learning about the collection, Thompson called the Genoa Township collector.

The Maine lens was held by a private collector for years before Gronow bought the artifact, Thompson says he was told.

“(Gronow) claimed he paid upwards of a quarter of a million dollars for it,” Thompson said.

Negotiations to buy the lens fizzled.

In 2009, around the time Thompson tracked the Maine lens to Michigan, he got a call from the Coast Guard’s curator.

“(Danielson) said it’s still Coast Guard property and that if the Coast Guard recovers it, we’ll get it back,” Thompson said.

Since the 1990s, the Coast Guard has aggressively tracked lenses and other property, a movement coinciding with lighthouse preservation efforts, Danielson told The News.

“Lenses just weren’t valued back then like they are today,” she said. “They are pieces of art.”

The Maine lens is worth an estimated $250,000, while the Belle Isle lamp is worth $350,000, according to the government.

In December 2009, the lenses were listed for sale on Gronow’s website, according to court records.

The listings were later removed, according to court records.

The Justice Department wants U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith to declare the lenses property of the federal government and order the lamps returned to the Coast Guard. It’s possible the Belle Isle lens could be put on display at the Dossin museum.

“It’s interesting now that because someone had the forethought to care for the lenses all these years — instead of smashing them to bits — that the government is coming out of the shadows and demanding they be returned without compensation,” Gronow said. “It’s just the government’s bully pulpit.”

Danielson wrote to the Genoa Township collector’s museum, requesting documentation about both lenses and urging Gronow not to move the lamps.

Danielson never got a response, according to the lawsuit.

In late 2014, the lenses were moved to the law office of Gronow’s attorney in Northville before being returned to his private collection in late 2015 or early this year, the government alleges.

The detective work and prospect of seeing the Belle Isle lens returned to Detroit thrilled Cynthia Bieniek of St. Clair Shores, who belongs to the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association.

“It’s the sentimentality,” she said. “Why wouldn’t you want it on display where it used to stand?”